Patrick Kane laughed earlier this week when a Toronto reporter asked him if the “Blackhawks Revenge Tour” narrative had any merit — in other words, if the Hawks were unusually fired up this season after two straight first-round exits, and after being largely written off as true contenders by much of the hockey world.
“I don’t think anyone’s thinking about that too much in here,” Kane said.
Well, these Hawks might not be motivated by perceived slights or residual anger, but they’re motivated nonetheless. Several players have alluded to a positive energy, a better vibe, among the players than existed in the past few seasons, even the emotionally tumultuous but ultimately triumphant 2014-15 campaign. It’s helped propel the Hawks to a hot start, taking seven of eight points to open a brutal four-game stretch.
They’re scoring. They’re buzzing. They seem to be having fun again.
“I don’t know what it is about us so far, but it seems like this group is a little bit tighter than maybe the groups we’ve had in the past,” Kane said.
That energy level was a bit lower in Thursday’s 5-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild, the Hawks’ third game in their third city in four nights, all of them without dynamic center Nick Schmaltz. That’s a particularly challenging stretch early on, when players aren’t exactly in midseason form. And a controversial failed offside challenge decided the game, leaving a bad taste in the Hawks’ mouths. But it was the Hawks’ first real blemish on an otherwise uplifting start to the season.
Toews pointed to a more cohesive unit, no longer divided into two camps — the core guys, and the other guys. Whether it’s Patrick Sharp accepting a third-line role and taking 19-year-old Alex DeBrincat under his wing; or Richard Panik making more of an effort to hang out with all the players, not just the Slovak and Czech ones; or 27-year-old rookie Jan Rutta talking fantasy-football trash with his new teammates, the Hawks have had less clique-ing and more clicking.
And they firmly believe that locker-room cohesiveness translates to better play on the ice.
“For a couple years, the talk has always been young guys and veteran guys, and there’s kind of been some separation,” Toews said during training camp. “I feel like it’ll be important for a lot of guys to come in and feel like they understand their role, that they’re a vital part of this team not only on the ice, but vocally in the locker room, on the bus, on the plane, all those things. And everyone is welcome to be a leader in their own way. I think that’s when guys are really able to contirbute in the best way possible, when they’re allowed to really be themselves. … It’ll be an important thing to make everyone feel like this is their team, and there’s no difference between the player who’s been here for 10 years, or [who’s in] his first.”
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